What is historical fiction and does it have to be totally accurate?

Image: Pixabay

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between readers of historical fiction and the writers of these popular books. How much of their stories should be fact and how much should be fiction? The genre is, after all, historical fiction, which, I think, gives writers the license to use their imaginations. But what happens when readers take issue?

Dictionary.com defines historical fiction as “narratives that take place in the past and are characterized chiefly by an imaginative reconstruction of historical events and personages.”

Goodreads adds to this definition by explaining that:

“In some historical fiction, famous events appear from points of view not recorded in history, showing historical figures dealing with actual events while depicting them in a way that is not recorded in history. Other times, the historical event or time period complements a story’s narrative, forming a framework and background for the characters’ lives. Sometimes, historical fiction can be for the most part true, but the names of people and places have been in some way altered.”

There is also a term called “alternate history” in which writers speculate what could have happened if certain events ended differently.

Are you, as a reader, bothered by a writer’s imagination if the story portrays well-known leaders, heroes or organizations in a not-so-nice way?

Consider The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. How much is fact and how much is fiction? Are there really clues hidden in the works of Leonardo da Vinci and is the Priory of Sion—a secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci—accurately portrayed? Does the author’s imagination take away from the story, or enhance it?

How about Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier? Not much is known about Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and his relationship with the girl in this famous painting. Is it scandalous to suggest he had an affair with a servant girl from his own household?

I recently re-read the 2015 historical mystery, Second Street Station by Lawrence H. Levy in which there are many American historical figures from the late 1800s, including Thomas Edison. We all think of Edison as the inventor of the electric light bulb and many other important discoveries that have greatly enhanced our lives. In his book, Levy incorporates some lesser-known facts about Edison, including the inventor’s favorite drink, Vin Mariani, a popular cocaine-laced wine that helped him work around the clock. Levy also portrays Edison as a highly competitive and vindictive businessman, who orchestrated the public electrocutions of dogs, calves and an elephant to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current, which was developed by his chief rival, George Westinghouse. (Read all about the War of Currents here.) And Levy also ties Edison to an unsolved murder of film pioneer, Louis Le Prince, who was the first person to record motion on film and received patents on his devices before Edison. Levy isn’t the first to suggest Edison had something to do with Le Prince’s disappearance, but it’s likely new information for the casual reader.

These books are all great choices for a book club discussion because of the questions they raise. Many of the questions can’t be fully answered. I think that’s why they make great stories!

So can fact and fiction get along in the same novel?
I think so. What do you think?

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

23 thoughts on “What is historical fiction and does it have to be totally accurate?

  1. What a great post! I look at historical fiction as a wide range. As a reader, I don’t mind some facts being altered, but if it’s a major one, then it should be noted in the Acknowledgment or Introduction. If the author is making up a character and a romance with someone famous, it makes for good fiction. But if the author is saying someone historical didn’t really do something, then they are changing facts, so I want to know it somehow. But it’s always fiction to me and I try to just enjoy it!

    1. Thank you, Jay. I think if there it’s okay to portray things differently as long as it’s either acknowledged, as you say, or the history is already murky or unknown. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Yes, I really enjoy reading historical fiction. I feel like I learn about some aspect of history (I usually trust the author’s research), but the fictionalized part of it makes the reading much less dry than if I’m just reading a history tome.

  3. I think fact and fiction can work together…i love hearing about other time periods, but so much more impnteresting when there’s a cool story with it!

    1. I’m the same way – it’s fun to imagine what different people might have said or how they might have acted, rather than just reading about the facts of the times. Thanks for stopping in, Cathy. Hope you are well!

  4. I think the fiction aspect of historical fiction makes it much more interesting and entertaining. The last think I want to do is read a book riddled with facts…I had enough of that in college. 🙂

  5. I think it’s fun to read both kinds of books-historical fiction that takes huge liberties with the past, AND books that stick mostly to the truth, but with a different perspective, etc. It’s all worthwhile in my eyes, even the books that re-imagine history 🙂

  6. I don’t mind liberties being taken, but when it comes to making things up about an actual person, particularly in a way that could harm their character, then that becomes dicier. If, however, through research, someone finds documents and diaries to suggest the historical figure was in fact an unpleasant or nefarious person, then I suppose it’s fair game.

    1. True and with Thomas Edison there are many sources that tie him to being addicted to Vin Mariani which btw was widely used and accepted. Apparently it was the Pope’s favorite drink as well. And the War of Currents was also a real conflict between him and Westinghouse. The murder connection was a bit of a stretch, however, I found more than one site that mentioned Edison as a suspect. Of course, internet searches don’t necessarily lead to truthful accounts! Thanks for stopping over, Carrie.

  7. I think historical fiction authors should stick with facts as far as how society functioned in the time period and basic historical dates, but I love seeing how writers interpret various aspects of history. Even though I know exactly how it’s going to end, I can’t get enough of reading about Henry VIII and his wives. I’ve never come across one that’s completely off the mark as far as the history goes, but I love seeing the story played out in different ways. I don’t read historical fiction to study history – I’ll pick up a non-fiction tome for that – but I will quickly abandon a poorly researched book of historical fiction.

  8. Ken Fillet is a master at mixing real and fictional characters in his novels. In the Century trilogy his fictional characters meet and witness real historical characters and events to tell the reader.
    I’ve written three historical novels and I loved mixing real and fictional characters and I even included other fictional characters, such as Jane Eyre, Dr. Watson , Max de Winter and his father…
    Anything can happen in fiction!

  9. Great post and subject matter! I’m a fan of historical fiction, and I don’t mind taking liberties when it comes to creating an inner life for historical figures, so long as the basic facts, figures, actions, etc remain true to the historical record. I’ve also enjoyed historical fiction such as Michener’s huge books (like Alaska or Hawaii), where the basic history of a time and place are kept intact but populated by fictional characters experiencing a more or less accurate version of what real-life people might have experienced.

  10. I definitely think that a reader would expect a historical novel to be fairly accurate insofar as facts are concerned. I am writing a biographical historical novel at the moment and I had to draw a detailed timeline to make sure the story is not out of kilter with the reality of the time.

    1. Yes, historical fiction requires a lot more planning. We were just talking about this at dinner tonight and I think one of the most important things is to make sure the time period is accurately portrayed. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Robbie.

Tell me what you're thinking!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s